MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The strongest typhoon in the world this year bore down on the Philippines, sending thousands fleeing villages Thursday.
The U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii said Typhoon Haiyan's maximum sustained winds were 314 kilometers per hour (195 mph), with gusts up to 379 kilometers per hour (235 mph).
A province devastated by an earthquake last month was in the path of the storm.
The typhoon could further strengthen and pick up speed as it moves over the Pacific Ocean before slamming into the eastern province of Samar early Friday, government forecaster Buddy Javier said.
The storm was not expected to directly hit Manila further north. The lowest alert in a four-level typhoon warning system was issued in the flood-prone capital area, meaning it could experience winds of up to 60 kph (37 mph) and rain.
As of 9 p.m., the eye of the typhoon was 338 kilometers (211 miles) southeast of Eastern Samar province's Guiuan township. The storm was moving at 39 kph (24 mph), up from its earlier speed of 33 kph (20 mph).
The U.S. Navy's center said Typhoon Haiyan was the strongest tropical cyclone in the world this year. Cyclone Phailin, which hit eastern India on Oct. 12, packed sustained winds of up to 222 kph (138 mph) and stronger gusts.
Haiyan is forecast to barrel through the country's central region Friday and Saturday before blowing toward the South China Sea over the weekend, heading toward Vietnam.
President Benigno Aquino III warned people to leave high-risk areas, including 100 coastal communities where forecasters said the storm surge could reach up to 7 meters (23 feet). He urged seafarers to stay in port.
Aquino ordered officials to aim for zero casualties, a goal often not met in an archipelago lashed by about 20 tropical storms each year, most of them deadly and destructive. Haiyan is the 24th such storm to hit the Philippines this year.
The president also assured the public of war-like preparations: three C-130 air force cargo planes and 32 military helicopters and planes on standby, along with 20 navy ships.
"No typhoon can bring Filipinos to their knees if we'll be united," he said in a televised address.
Governors and mayors supervised the evacuation of landslide- and flood-prone communities in several provinces where the typhoon is expected to pass, said Eduardo del Rosario, head of the government's main disaster-response agency. School classes and plane flights were canceled in many areas.
Edgardo Chatto, governor of Bohol island province, where an earthquake in October killed more than 200 people, said soldiers, police and rescue units were helping displaced residents, including thousands staying in small tents, move to shelters. Bohol is not forecast to receive a direct hit but is expected to be battered by strong winds and rain, government forecaster Jori Loiz said.
"My worst fear is that the eye of this typhoon will hit us. I hope we will be spared," Chatto told The Associated Press by telephone.
Gov. Roger Mercado of landslide-prone Southern Leyte province said more than 6,000 residents had been evacuated to shelters, government and emergency personnel had been put on alert, and relief goods have been packed for distribution.
"All we are doing now is we are praying, praying hard," he told ABS-CBN News Channel.
Mayor Emiliana Villacarillo of Eastern Samar's Dolores township said residents of her town did not want to be evacuated because the weather was fine on Thursday but "we forced them and hauled them to evacuation centers."
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.